Value Beyond Instrumentalization

A few friends and I published a collection of letters.

Short note today (I’m still trying to figure out how best to use this Substack versus my personal website) to say that I just published one of my longer pieces in a while. It’s type-set prettily here.

It was so meaningful to work together with a group of people I admired on topics I think are deeply important; I’d like to do more of this sort of work, and will be announcing the inaugural issue of a new magazine about technology in a month that I’m also deeply excited about.

If the letter prompts anything for you, I’d love to hear about it, especially if you come from a different disciplinary or professional background!

a few questions for you! + life updates

what advice would you give your 23-year-old self? what's the strangest thing that's happened to you this year? what's a folktale you were told growing up? what's a word you've been thinking about?

I’m turning 23 today, which according to the internet means I’ve lived 25% of the average lifespan of an Asian-American female in the USA.

Every year I’ve asked for thought-gifts on questions I can’t get out of my head. My questions this year:

  1. What is the strangest/most surreal thing that has happened to you (this year, or ever)? I’ve been entirely immersed in magical realism and surrealist fiction this year, and curious especially about sensory details and the haptic/auratic experience of the surreal. My friend told me about waking up the morning after she learned she was six months pregnant to a baby bump that had not been there the night before.

  2. What is a folktale or myth that your family told you growing up? I’ve been collecting strange myths and folktales from friends and turning them into longer fiction. If you gift me with a story you were told as a child, I would be so grateful. I’m especially curious about morality tales, ghost stories, and stories about food.

  3. Are there any words you’ve been thinking about recently?

  4. Miscellany: Is there any media or art you’ve enjoyed recently? Any feedback or advice for me?

Here’s a little form, but feel free to leave your answers in the comments as well. Answer one question or all of them, anonymous or leave your name + contact :) Thank you so, so much.

I’ll share my own answers here too:

  1. I’m still documenting the year we just all went through. So much happened for me this year. My grandma, who helped raise me, passed away in China. We watched her leave us over a video call, and could only grieve from afar. I started weightlifting during the pandemic and watched as my body become a strange and unfamiliar thing to me in real-time. I started a company with my sister for fun and then it became a serious thing all too quickly, and I sold it while watching the frenzy around crypto / NFTs / SPACs / GameStop. All these experiences felt surreal and incongruent in different ways, and there are specific sensory details that I’ll share via more writing, hopefully soon!

  1. A boy is incredibly spoiled. His mother loves him too much and serves him hand and foot, even feeding him by hand. He grows into a teen, and his mother’s mother is dying, and so she needs to leave him by himself for the first time. She cooks a massive jianbing (incidentally incredibly delicious), cuts a head-sized hole out of the center, fits it around his neck, and then leaves the village. It’s big enough that it should easily feed him for the two weeks that she is away, but when she comes home, she is horrified to discover that he has starved to death. The jianbing still encircles his neck. He had eaten the portion immediately in front of him, but he was too lazy to even lift his hands and rotate it.

  2. Tender: having a soft or yielding textureeasily broken, cut, or damaged; showing care; something that may be offered in payment. Something something financialization instrumentalization gift economies crypto something something. Coherent thoughts slowly incoming - if you want to talk about gifting culture in crypto I’d love to learn with you. I’m excited to read The Professor and the Madman.

Nowadays, I’m working in mediums that require sprints, not marathons. Short fiction, not novels. Glass, not painstaking pixel-sculpting in Photoshop. I kept trying to write long essays in this Substack on grand themes (here’s one on value that I’m almost-happy with): seeking plateau versus peak experiences, or on Bourdieu’s understanding of taste and how astounding it was that even Virginia Woolf only felt she could develop aesthetic judgment after two years of financial stability, but I think this year is not the year of long coherent thoughts. This is the year of small things.

Some small gifts:

Some life updates:

  • I’m now in New York, will be in Montreal in the fall doing research, then hopefully back to NYC in January.

  • I signed my first nonfiction book deal with a dear friend of mine (!), but am hoping to embark on fiction short form and long form soon. If you’ve published work, I’d love to read it. I’m also looking to put together an online writing group that’d meet biweekly. If you write spec fic / sci-fi / personal nonfiction (broad, I know!), and such a group would be helpful for you, please let me know!

I’ve taken almost a year's hiatus from writing online, since so much stuff has been going on, but am aiming to write more in public this year, which I’m feeling both excited and nervous about! The main gift from the (still-ongoing) crisis is an increased sense of the fragility and preciousness of my own life, and all life, and I hope to keep this feeling with me in the next quarter of my life. Thank you for giving me some of your own wonderful and precious life and reading this! I hope you spend some quality time offscreen today.

Much light,
Jasmine ✨

Disembodiment & Dreams

Everything's been hazy, recently.

Increasingly I feel like a disembodied mind in front of a series of screens. Last week I logged 125 hours across my laptop, phone, and tablet, almost 18 hours a day. Last week was exceptional, I tell myself, but really it's not - my waking hours can be approximated by screentime. This is why being back home with my family in my childhood home since May has felt fine. I've been able to fully live out my workaholic tendencies, with no social or even subsistence distractions. I don’t think this is good, though, this way of being that means it scarcely matters where I physically am, as long as I have my monitor and ergonomic keyboard properly set up and strong WiFi. It feels awfully reminiscent of the dark picture painted in 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep.

My life is the exact opposite, at least at the surface, of Nietzsche's master morality. The life he describes as natural and good is a physical, active, decisive, sensory. I’ve sought this in small ways. I've taken up weightlifting, and the feeling of my body straining against the bar reminds me I’m real. I bought myself a grand piano recently and my piano teacher keeps telling me to stroke the keys the way an Impressionist painter would lay his brush on the canvas. I still don't understand the magic of the keyboard; one would think that the range of motion is one-dimensional, just an up and down against the hammer. An engineer friend of mine asked me how it worked, in a sort of disbelief that multidimensional touch mattered on such a brute instrument (angle and sustain and distribution!), and I couldn't explain the mechanics, but I've never been more sure of something. Lately, I've been fantasizing about moving to Thailand next year and undergoing intensive Muay Thai training, partly because I would dearly love to emerge from this age of horrors as a ninja, and partly because I deeply want to try on a sensuous life. This year was the first year I've prioritized my health, and seeing my body composition shift has been the most compelling and interesting feedback loop. I'm fascinated by extremes and I want to see what my body can do.

On a side note, I'm very proud of myself for buying myself this grand piano — a beautiful 6'1 Yamaha CX3 with incredible bass. It's so completely irrational considering the cost of a large house in places I'd like to live, but it's rational if I consider my personal identity to be a closed system of commitments (which .. I’m unsure about). Ten years ago, I made my first serious promise to myself that I'd buy myself a grand piano someday. It was the first promise I made myself with the full consciousness of what a promise meant, and I trust myself more now that I've fulfilled on it. It felt like an act of self-creation. Playing it for the first time made my heart open abruptly in a way that only has happened for me one other time, when I first saw the leaves of a tree, really saw them, after getting LASIK two years ago.

In some way, I have inverted Kierkegaard's pyramid of the sensuous, ethical, and spiritual — I am so happy right now at home, split between my screens, my books, my piano, and my rack of weights, and have made in my own way my own peace with the eternal — but I yearn for a return to what Kierkegaard regards as base. I want to hit things! I want to dance. I want to eat food with my hands. I want to see colours that haven’t been picked out for me by some designer, leap onto cars, experience the poetic cosmos of the breath.

My therapist is training me to lucid dream. The very first question he asked me was, “How do you know you're not dreaming, right now? That the world around you is real?" I was on the phone with him, walking around outside, and I immediately knelt and ran my hands over the sidewalk I was walking on. “The granularity of the feeling of the pebbles," I replied, and scooped a couple into my hand. No lucid dreams yet, but in the meantime, you’ll find me fact-checking the earth.

I've been playing a lot with GPT-3, like everybody else, and it's become for me an excellent optimizing function to fight against. Don't be GPT-3, I remind myself, in conversation. Be surprising! Be (more) generative! GPT-3 can move slightly beyond sentences in its corpus, past sentences humans have conceived or and spoken, but it can't leap beyond us, not us. But you can leap beyond yourself, say something that has never been spoken before.

Take the following descriptors of a kitchen:

The yellow kitchen

The kitchen was the colour of sunlight

The kitchen was the color of midsummer suns

The kitchen was the color of urine

The butter-colored kitchen

The yellow walls made Jason look sickly

The yellow walls turned Jason's eyes a muddy, inconclusive gray

This is what GPT-3 generated:

The yellow woodwork burned Jason's brown eyes

Not even the yellow kitchen light could brighten the day

Not even the butter-colored kitchen glowed with gaiety any more

Not even the yellow house held out any hope for the future

The kitchen was a butter-colored prison

Beat that! Let’s up the bar for future Turing tests.

A few quick life updates:

  • I've started a new role as a Research Fellow at the Partnership on AI working on Publication Norms. I'm working on case studies starting with H5N1, and now looking at cybersecurity. Send me your favorite stories of security researchers and hackers!

  • I'm working on some classical piano repertoire that I'd like to record at home. If you're a sound engineer/hobbyist, let me know, would love to chat about what to set up!

A few pieces of music:

  • I listened to Max Richter's Recomposition of Vivaldi's Four Seasons and

    Andreas Vollenweider for the first time recently

  • Have been digging Kishi Bashi

  • I've been listening to all my music with Tidal (Masters is lossless and 360 mode is something else with Sony WH-1000XM4s); highly recommend! It’s an experience.

  • I am SO excited for my first live concert after this, and am thinking about what it’d be like to live in Taiwan for this reason.. I can’t imagine not hearing any live music in 2021.

Hope you’re taking care of yourself. I would love to know what music you’ve been listening to, and see any photos from your camera roll you’d want to share! 🌱

Hello Universe!

Is everything okay where you are?

I’m a bit astonished that you’re here. It’s an honor.

I’m not sure what shape this newsletter will take, which is evidenced by the fact that it’s taken me over a year to write my first post. Better to send than to be perfect. I am content for this to be a joyful, fragmented, and infrequent shout into the void.

The pandemic has made everything seem slightly smaller, closer, more intimate. I have the sense that I know where you’re reading this, and you know where I am.

I’ve been thinking about US & China science and technology competition. I spent 6 weeks working on this question at the Future of Humanity Institute (what does one think about, exactly, after the future of humanity?). Two interesting tidbits:

  • China does systematic reforms of its science funding system on a cadence of roughly every decade, whereas as far as I’m aware the NSF/NIH has not undergone a large systematic review in its entire history. We can expect their system to be much more flexible and responsive to critique, although Chinese academics have plenty to complain about.

  • America culturally has many hypomanic traits - the model of the American entrepreneur is an exaggerated version of the archetypal American: cheerful, almost naively optimistic, confident, inventive, creative, energetic. Think Christopher Columbus, Alexander Hamilton, Andrew Carnegie, Elon Musk.

    John Gartner attributes this to self-selection for hypomania as an immigrant nation - “only 1/100 of people emigrate, and they tend to have special drive, ambition, and talent”. There are elevated rates of manic-depressive disorder among immigrants, and the USA has higher rates of mania than every other country w/ possible exception of New Zealand (which topped USA in one study); the top 3 countries with the most people with mania (USA, NZ, Canada) are all nations of immigrants. Asian countries (Taiwan, SK, etc), have the lowest rates of bipolar disorder. Europe is in the middle.

I’m happy to share more notes and hot takes if you’re interested!

I’m in a fantastic Philosophy of Technology working group with five other wonderful technologists. We’re tackling the ambitious project of untangling the ideological edifices technology engages with. I’m very lucky to be working on deconfusing Utility/Progress with Matthew Jordan, a very cool musician and Rhodes Scholar who among other things read for a master’s in HPS. We’re currently working through The History of the Idea of Progress by Robert Nisbet.

Some questions we’re tackling: 1) what is a ‘good life’ for the technologist? and 2) to what extent can we quantify and compare the ‘good’? Light questions.

I’ve also been pre-occupied with digital death. I’ve watched both death tolls tick up on the screen as well as my own beloved grandmother in China pass away on a plugged-in laptop. Our family frantically disconnected the WiFi in the house when the video started glitching. It’s so hard to remember when I’m on Zoom and my background is the glowing moving digital aurora, that I’m real and embodied and can die and will die.

a wail echoes in cyberspace / every glitch a small death

On a much lighter note, I accidentally deleted my Twitter, erasing years of history, thousands of followers, and a carefully curated information ecosystem in one missed calendar reminder. I had felt that my Twitter presence was becoming stale, that my identity was not well-formed and stable enough to withstand the status games of Twitter, that I’m far too Agreeable (95th percentile on Agreeableness on the Big 5) to be in such a public arena. Twitter no longer felt generative for me, but I still mourned accidentally losing that small self-catalogue. My new Twitter has the same handle but feels very much discontinuous from my past Twitter self. I hope that this new identity is more context-invariant and that the death of my old self turns out to be a noble sacrifice.

Oh, and if you’d like to hear shorter thoughts from me, I’m there.

Here’s some light. Have you witnessed magic lately?

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